These poems were written in various places throughout Slovenia from May-June 2022
while living in Ljubljana on assignment as a cycling journalist. Much of my prior work as
an architecture critic dealt with the details and often absurdities of the American
landscape at scale often seen from moving vehicles, especially trains – this perspective
was then extended to cycling writing. Turning that same eye towards Slovenia, I
decided to work in a different medium. Perhaps because the Slovene landscape is
many times more compact, I was inspired to use a more compact form.
eight lines from the train to Maribor
the steeple watching over the valley is disguised by the pines
the peasant’s descendent sharpens his scythe
the scythe collects dandelions in its crook
the egrets play in the Sava.
and all of the rough-handed men of the world
will soon rinse their palms in the sink before dinner
their soft, muffled voices saying into the water
I’m coming, I’m coming.
be a lamp if you can’t be human wrote kosovel but he was really talking about being a
lawn chair left on the banks of the river sava in the winter if you can’t be human for a
lamp worries for lack of fuel or for the times when darkness no longer can promise safe
passage through it but a winter lawn chair on the sava trusts in a summer future of pink
toes in the sand the sound of drunken singing along to a tinny speaker the laughter of a
nation’s new flag in the wind
it is midnight in Zidani Most where
one waits for the train to Ljubljana with all two of everyone else.
we do not look at each other
we deal with the solace in our own way, for
solace is liminal but a glance is something, a glance means you have exchanged the
basest information of being human.
beneath, beyond the tracks, I cannot tell if there is a river
or just a big slit of darkness, a channel one falls into and never comes out of
dug just to keep things we shouldn’t have built from toppling over.
I can’t hear any water, can’t feel the slightest breeze in the stale air, can’t see anything
through the fog other than the dilated smear of station lights, the
colored orbs that tell the trains, stop, go, wait.
we’ve ceded momentum itself to mere symbols.
and in the night, momentum is all there is
our backlit reflections stare back at us
as we search in the landscape for something to latch onto other than our own eyes.
maybe there are fields or mountains. streams, or vast forests
with stories attached going back a thousand years or so, when it
still meant something to be somewhere
but now all that’s left are holes poked in the black fabric
by stars and the lights in churches
the sky is vast, and God doesn’t care if the train is on time
yet were it not for them, this whole world could be a tunnel
the reflection in the window would be none the wiser.
outside of Ljubljana, there is real fog.
mythical fog which hovers low like smoke.
It is combed into streaks by the pines. The pines drink from it.
It kisses the stones of the Sava.
Through it, the sun is tamed into yolk.
Mid-sky the fog and the clouds embrace like man and woman
made the same yet different from one another
strangers reunited after becoming strangers
And after their embrace, they rejoin the world.
In the fog and the hills and the sun together
all of the little, temporary things we have built
become tightly packed with the things that expire with us.
Somehow we cut Trbovlje into the world
So we could eat away at the mountain until there was nothing left but the mountain.
Our scars still straddle the hills, metallic and creaking under the weight of entropy.
That which begets life must also die.
Permanence is a modernist myth built on consumption without end.
The mountain gave us the fire from its belly and what, really, have we done with it?
Two centuries pass without answers.
And for this crime, we still answer to no one.
The Savinja swells in its bends full like the hips of a woman.
In the rushing glyphs of water over stones, its unceasing tale of momentum is printed.
Our eyes ask: how can something be blue, brown, gray, and green simultaneously?
Each too swift for the stilted heron who must wait downstream in Laško.
The river laces together the detritus of man’s business and industry
Where on Sunday other creatures venture still down to the sandy bank
Leaving their shoes at the Savinja doorstep, they cross its threshold
Seeking the touch of something moving and alive.
Between Celje and Maribor, the hillsides are shaved bald for crops
and the haylofts are shingled with solar panels.
One problem is old and the other new.
The question has always been the same:
how many ways must we both need and exploit
the same indifferent sun?
In Maribor, in the middle of his coffee break, one of the musicians from the opera opens
his case and plays his cello simply because he has it with him and because there are
people around. He pulls warm vibrato out of ancient rituals of friction and air into
phrases of Saint-Saëns. It has been a while, but I remember how it goes. The Swan. It’s
an old chestnut. I know because I shut music out of my life after it couldn’t be everything
that gave it meaning – Love spurns, time goes on. but through my proximity to his
simple touch of fingers on strings the simple draw of the bow I could feel the lost years
in my hands which remember how to savor a stretch in tempo which remember how
vibration feels against a body which remembers the pleasurable resonance of an old
chestnut played into its own smile. sometimes incorrectly. sometimes just to hear the
Kate Wagner (b. 1993) is a writer, critic, and journalist. She is widely published in the fields of sports journalism, culture writing, and architecture criticism including stints as a columnist at The Baffler and The New Republic. Wagner is the creator of the architectural satire blog McMansion Hell and the literary cycling newsletter derailleur. She divides her time between Chicago and Ljubljana.
Photo by Tomaž Črnej